What is a psychopath?

August 23, 2011 in General

In 2006, the eye-opening documentary “The Corporation” took a searing and frightening look into the impact of big business on our lives. One of its main starting points was that, under US law, corporations are technically persons, and if we were to assess the behaviour of some corporations in the same manner as we do individuals exhibiting that same behaviour, we’d make a nasty discovery.

This from a review of the doco on Naturalnews.com:

“…this film asks, “If a corporation is a person, what kind of a person is it?” As it turns out, it’s the type of person who has no regard for the safety of others — the type of person who is unpredictable and who harms society, the environment and the people around him or her. Basically, if you go down through the checklist, it’s the kind of person who is classified as a psychopath. And this is the mental characteristic of the corporation. It is psychopathic in a technically defined mental disorders kind of way. If you look at how corporations act, they are psychopathic.”

But, of course, corporations are made up of people. Individuals make decisions, sometimes collectively, that result in damage to society. So what type of people are running our big businesses? According to a new study from Wellington’s Victoria University, they are…well, psychos:

“Victoria University students with higher scores for psychopathy traits tended to opt to study commerce, with law next most popular.

The study of 903 undergraduates found that significantly fewer with high psychopathy scores chose science and fewer still went for arts.”

The study, led by Victoria University associate professor of psychology Marc Wilson, is a world-first. It was inspired by fallout from the world’s financial crisis, and has been published this month in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences.

This is interesting not because it gives detractors of rampant free market capitalism a massive mental stick to beat their opponents with, but because it forces us to take a good look at what – in psychology terms – a psychopath actually is.

It’s far more than Norman Bates with a knife in the bathroom – it’s a set of behaviours which causes the brain to perceive the world differently.

This from Sam Harris’s excellent new book, “The Moral Landscape”, which I hope to talk a lot more about in the coming weeks:

“…psychopaths do not experience a normal range of anxiety and fear, and this may account for their lack of conscience.

While anxiety and fear are emotions that most of us would prefer to live without, they serve as anchors to social and moral norms. Without an ability to feel anxious about one’s own transgressions, real or imagined, norms become nothing more than “rules that others make up.”

But here’s where it gets really interesting, particularly in light of the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s new focus on “crazed killers” and their antipathy towards the insanity defence:

“Unlike others who suffer from mental illness or mood disorders, psychopaths generally do not feel that anything is wrong with them. They also meet the legal definition of sanity, [emphasis mine] in that they possess an intellectual understanding of the difference between right and wrong. However, psychopaths generally fail to distinguish between conventional and moral transgressions.

When asked “Would it be okay to eat at your desk if the teacher gave you permission?” vs. “Would it be okay to hit another student in the face if the teacher gave you permission?” normal children age thirty-nine months and above tend to see these questions as fundamentally distinct and consider the latter transgression intrinsically wrong. In this, they appear to be guided by an awareness of potential human suffering.

“Children at risk for psychopathy tend to view these questions as morally indistinguishable.”

Not all people who score significantly on the psychopathy scales are going to be out at Mitre 10 gathering materials for a torture chamber or collecting human skin. But there are differences in behaviour, which Harris argues have been shown by science to be identifiable at the level of the human brain.

What does all this mean for us?

Well, it’s further evidence that the blanket association between mental illness and violence is incredibly unfair and stigmatising.

The self-stigma and guilt that we experience around our mental illness is anathema to the experience of those who have committed the world’s worst atrocities.

It’s time for opponents of the insanity defence, if they’re really serious about keeping our communities safe, to do some serious research and find another tree to bark up.

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